The Excitement of School Supplies, the Beginning of a New School Year, and Reconnecting with Friends

‘Tis the season for school supplies! Were you one of those kids who couldn’t wait to fill your new pencil box? My pencil box was sometimes my Grandpa Schmitt’s cigar box so it had crisp corners and the papered hinge was still unbroken. Maybe it was the box of crayons that not only smelled good, but all the crayons had points and the wrappers were still intact that made you giddy? How about the 5-subject spiral notebooks, filled with  college-ruled, clean, empty pages that held so many good intentions that each section would be used just for the designated subject . . . until somehow one section ran out of paper too soon and messed up the whole system?

I was that kid. Still am.

Of course now that excitement and those purchases are for my writing and reading. There’s something about fresh starts with new supplies that energize my creative spirit. I’ve gotten back to blogging regularly and will be re-introducing something here in September. I can’t wait!

I’m reading more, both for pleasure and for research, so books have various colored sticky-notes popping out of them like someone’s partied inside and let loose handfuls of confetti. 

I’m back to writing more. I’ve finished two poems in as many weeks. I’m beginning the narrative on my parish history. I’m dusting off a fairly crappy first draft of a second novel while I work harder to find a home for the first.

I know this all has to do with these new supplies. Well ok, maybe not all.

But they do help and the change in the air does too. Hubby told me the other night we’ve lost an hour of daylight already since the summer solstice. I’m one of those weird ones who love the thought of shorter days.

But the highlight about this time of year is reconnecting with poets and writers after a month or two of summer break. Even though we’re not kids and our lives don’t revolve around the school calendar, our internal clocks somehow still revert to that cycle. Like years ago when the first day of school meant seeing friends again, we local poets and writers look forward to August when our critique groups reconvene and our monthly reading and open mic series starts up.

The first event of our Afternoon of Poetry and Prose for the 2018 – 2019 Season was Sunday. We always call this first month a Welcome Back Celebration. Unlike the rest of the year, we don’t invite a Feature Reader from outside our group to headline. Instead we regular members, we friends, gather and celebrate reconnecting, share our adult versions of What I Did Over Summer Vacation and most of all, celebrate the poems and stories we continue to write with each others’ support and encouragement.

What are some of your favorite memories and new traditions for this time of transition?

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A New Book Baby? More like a Foster Child

My book baby, In the Garden of Life and Death ~ A Mother and Daughter Walk, turns four this year, so not really a baby anymore.  Like parents of a toddler are often asked, ‘So, any plans for a sibling?’, writers are often queried, ‘What are you working on now?’ Both questions stem from a good place, real love and interest. Or so I hope.

For me – and it just happened again this week – the question gives me a little boost. It means the person believes in me as a writer and is eagerly waiting to meet the next little book baby. Well, the second baby is ‘in the oven’ – the hot mess of querying and looking for a home. Gestation periods for books are unpredictable. But I have a current work-in-progress . . . sort of.

Here she is. But she’s not really mine. I’m fostering her. My parish, St. Anne Catholic Church, in Rock Hill, SC will be celebrating her centennial in 2019 and I’ve been asked to compile her history into a book – including narrative, photos and recipes. My spare bedroom is now the parish archives.

One piece of research that came to me was a booklet of St. Anne’s history. I had mixed feelings even before I read it. It would be great to pick up where this left off, three-fourths of my work done! But I also didn’t want to be confined. Wearing a jacket makes me claustrophobic, how could I fit my vision of what the book should be if I had to work in the context of what was already researched and printed in this 8.5 x 11 page folded in half, stapled-together, booklet?

I glanced at the first page or two and was immediately overwhelmed by the small print, the denseness of the words on the page, the academic feel. I put it away and started in the research I’d have to do anyway.

Research included interviewing parishioners who have been in this church over 50 years. They remember the priest who was transferred to Texas but returned every year on his motorcycle and made a point to visit all the families. There were less than 50 at the time. They laughed and pulled out photos of the talent shows that raised money for the current building, our fourth place of worship in our 100 years.

I’ve lingered over scrapbooks, the pages so old they literally flake and disintegrate in my fingers. They are filled with photos and news clippings of summer camp, of the year the KKK burned a cross on our school property because we were integrated – the first in our state, of our International Festival – a weekend of some of the best food and entertainment from close to 20 countries. That’s how diverse our parish of over 1900 families is.
Those were the stories I wanted to tell, but was afraid I’d step on the toes of the historian before me. Over the weekend I finally waded through that booklet. It’s history, yet few stories. It lists the minutia of weekly collections through the years, chronicles a continuing census of births, sacraments and deaths, and glosses over the struggle of finding the piece of property where we finally built our church.

I have to admit, reading those pages was like opening a door. While I’ll use much of the information, I feel I can raise this little foster child of a book the way I’d hoped. I’ll fill her with the stories, the people, the ups and downs of what history is all about.

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A Final Glimpse of Alaska ~ The world is full of magical things waiting patiently for our senses to grow sharper. W. B. Yeats

Our cabin on the ship grew noticeably colder, to the point I checked the thermostat to see where it was set. The cold air wasn’t coming from the inside. So I peeked outside.

This was the view as we entered Glacier Bay National Park and that morning’s meditation – the one attached to this post – couldn’t have been more appropriate. We stood on the deck and the air continued to chill the further into the park we sailed. Passengers lined the railing wearing gloves, hoodies, scarves, windbreakers, anything to insulate against the cold. We were ¼ mile away and still felt the frigid air that came from those massive rivers of ice and snow.

There is constant noise coming from the glaciers, you can literally hear it receding as it groans, cracks like thunder, and calves in a ‘swoosh’ of ice and powder. We were fortunate enough to catch a good-sized calving, but there was a large section with a fissure that ran from top to bottom and we all just knew it was ready to go. With every rumble we waited for the piece to fall, but it never did. At least not while we were there! 

If anyone wants to know what the color aquamarine truly looks like, look at the inner ice formations of a glacier. There were spires and chunks of the most beautiful blue hue. 

When we first looked at our itinerary and saw we would be at this one glacier for more than an hour, we wondered why we’d spend so much time there. Now we know that hour was not nearly enough. The majesty of the place made us aware of our own small size, slowed us down to wonder at and appreciate the beauty, the history, the science of the landscape.

Ranger Pat from Glacier Bay National Park held a short presentation before we journeyed into the park. While he of course loves this park and encouraged us to really enjoy it, that wasn’t his only message. We all live someplace where there is a patch of blue or green near us – a state or neighborhood park, our own backyard. Ranger Pat wants us to spend time in them, to sharpen our senses, experience the beauty each of those places hold, and take care of it.

These final pictures are from Denali National Park. Wherever your travels take you, may you notice the magical things the world offers ~ whether in nature or from the cultures and people who inhabit it.

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A Glimpse of Alaska ~ Offer a greeting to someone you don’t know.

How appropriate to read this adage the morning we left Fairbanks to board our cruise ship. We found out cruises are set up to encourage passengers to offer a greeting to someone you don’t know.

From the maître d’s simple request at dinner, “Do you mind sharing a table?”, to planned social activities, one can be as social as one chooses.

Being newbies to cruising, we asked family and friends for tips on making this first venture as pleasant as possible. And of course to not look too lost as we wandered around the ship.

One suggestion we heard – choose the traditional dinner option where you eat at the same table, at the same time with the same people so you really get to know them – we completely ignored. And what a difference that made. We ate with, at different times, different families from Australia, a couple from Singapore, people who were in the process of moving about 15 minutes from us in our county back in SC, and a mother and daughter who lived in the town next door to my hometown in Ohio.

One Australian couple told us about their first cruising adventure. As another ship approached, those passengers started waving, so this couple and fellow passengers waved back. For whatever reason, they didn’t think that if the ships were close enough that people could wave to each other, the ships may be too close! Unfortunately they were. One ‘bumped’ the other and caused enough damage to certain common areas those had to be closed for the duration of the cruise. But that didn’t dampen this couple’s enthusiasm for cruising.

At dinner one evening we met Lucille and Mara, a mother and daughter traveling together. Mom Lucille was in her 80’s and couldn’t count all the places she and Mara have traveled together. Greece was one of her favorites. But the interesting story that held the table captive until the dining room was clearing out, was how Mara left her NY surgery practice due to a disability and was now an organic homesteader in WV building a straw-bale home. It was too expensive to move the original farmhouse to another place on the property, so Mara and her partner tore it down themselves and are repurposing several things – built-in bookcases, a built-in armoire, the mantel, and a section of the wooden floor. They cut it out, joists and all, lifted it out with a fork lift. The joists were removed from the section, and it was refinished and will now hang as art in the new home.

While we waited to board a bus for one of our shore excursions I talked with a woman waiting for her trip. She was a bit tired, having just returned from the Galapagos Islands a week or two earlier. She said she shouldn’t have booked the two trips so close together. “But when you’re 82- years-old you take the opportunities when you get them!” I told her those back-to-back trips would be hard for anyone, but especially for someone 82. She laughed. “I do a lot of things most 82-year-old women don’t do!” I believed her. This was her second time to Alaska, the first being 30 years ago. She said she was sorry she came again because it had changed so much. One of the things I was awe-struck by during the trip was how vast and pristine Alaska is. I tried to imagine how much more so it must have been 30 years earlier. I still can’t picture it. I asked her what tour she was waiting for. She smiled wide, “I’m going out on the boat with Captain Jack and the guys from Deadliest Catch!”

One couple though became more than dinner friends. We arrived in Fairbanks after two flights and one bus ride. Even though it was 10:00 in the evening, it looked like noon and we needed to stretch our leg so we went for a walk through Fairbanks. Another couple had the same idea as we met them a block away from the hotel. They were from Texas. We were from SC. That was all we exchanged. The next day we ran into them again at one of the planned excursions and this time introduced ourselves. His name was Pat and hers was Ronnie. The following morning as we left out room for the next leg of our trip, Pat and Ronnie emerged from the room directly across the hall – we had no idea were neighbors. At that point we decided we were meant to be cruise buddies and we rode the bus together to Denali and found out we had a lot in common.

Once on the ship, we two couples signed up for different shore excursions but made a point to have dinner together twice. Ronnie had us laughing so hard over dessert one night we were all in tears. We didn’t get to say good-bye the last night, just texted to wish each other safe travels home and exchange email addresses. But at the airport the next morning we saw them and got to have a proper good-bye. Will we see them again? I hope so. They have a wedding in Savannah this fall so they’ll be in the neighborhood – sort of. And Charlotte has a direct flight to Texas.

We met so many interesting people on this trip by being willing to share a table with anyone. We heard some fascinating stories that will stick with us for a long time. I wondered what it would be like if we did the same thing back home – offer a greeting to someone we don’t know and just listen to their story.

Statue outside The Sanctuary on the Golden Princess

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A Glimpse of Alaska ~ Our Happiness Depends on the Mind We Cultivate

 While the beauty of Alaska is obvious, I was also taken by the real beauty of the people who live there. Many of the residents are natives, but repeatedly we met folks who went to Alaska to visit and never left. Their stories are as varied as they are similar.

A young woman – 30ish? – grew up in Texas and went up to visit 10 years ago. During the summer months she works in a shop that sells fine jewelry, scarves, and fur-lined gloves. Then she returns to her homestead in Homer, AK for a few weeks before getting on a boat to help process and can salmon. Her family thinks she’s crazy but she loves it.

Our bus driver and guide in Denali, another woman, lives in a 10’x12’ dry cabin and drives during the tourist season. She’s also a trained culinary chef, “. . . one of my other passions.” In the winter she’s a personal chef catering to those with special dietary needs – like cancer patients. She was another transplant, from Pennsylvania, I believe. (This is a picture of some of the mountains in Denali National Park. We never saw Mt. Denali herself. She’s so large she creates her own weather pattern and she kept herself shrouded in clouds that day. She would have dwarfed these mountains.)

Another of our drivers came up on a whim with a bunch of guys “. . . and four of us stayed.”

It’s not only their sense of adventure and both self and intra-reliance that impresses, it’s their sense of humor and their creativity. It’s evident in their self-deprecating stories and how they celebrate and welcome the unusual ~ in this photo that looks like trees, the second from the left standing alone is actually a house someone has been building for years. The guide on our train said it’s known as the Dr. Seuss House because that’s what it resembles. The guy has never lived there and he was ordered to stop adding to it, it’s 200 ft. or so, or he’d have to add a light at the top to alert pilots of its presence.

This one is another from the train ride, someone’s idea of humor out in the middle of nowhere.

The sense of strength, humor and whimsy is also seen in their public art.

 

Here is a glimpse of the art around Fairbanks, Skagway, and Juneau.

These are a couple from Fairbanks. The first is the top of a fence around a parking lot. The second is a street grate with birch leaves.

These are from Skagway. The top one depicts the skyline and sits at the ground of the “Welcome to Skagway’ sign. I didn’t all the figures climbing up the mountains until tonight when I uploaded here. The one below is one of many in different cities that honor the gold panning, mining, and exploring in Alaska.And these are from the capitol, Juneau. This is actually the shadow cast by the fencing along the pier. One can see the homage to the native tribes of Alaska with the totem pole design.

Star fish are cast out of the sea and on to these benches.
And salmon fly in the air.

While I took loads of scenery photos, I was just as likely to take pictures of the local art. I think public art reflects the mind and spirit of the people and the cities they live in.

 

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A Glimpse of Alaska ~ Use water thoughtfully . . .

There was a bit of synchronicity during my trip to Alaska. The quotes for my morning meditations seem to fit perfectly with the day ahead. I’ve grown used to those moments, but still had to smile as each day unfolded and I experienced in a new way what those quotes held. This picture is from the train from Denali to Whittier.

The morning we left SC, my quote was “Use water thoughtfully. Some people have no water.” It was World Environment Day. I understood this was intended as a reminder that people in many countries around the world don’t have access to good water resources. But it proved to hold another meaning as we got our glimpse of Alaska.

Alaska is obviously surrounded by water and has thousands of lakes. Yet many of the residents don’t have running water – by choice.

As we rode the bus from the airport to our hotel we heard our first reference to ‘dry cabin.’ A dry cabin has no indoor plumbing, no running water. With temperatures that can dip to -50 degrees, (last year in Fairbanks it dropped to -39 and locals considered it a mild winter), water pipes would be frozen half the year. So the problem is eliminated with dry cabins. People have either composting toilets or outhouses and have water trucked in to be stored in cisterns.

One of our guides in Haines lived in a house with plumbing, but the area was considered not the ‘most desirable part of town.’ The most favorable land is where the dry cabins are. She said Alaskans are weird that way. One of our bus drivers also lives in a dry cabin and takes her showers at the rec center. Or invites herself to friends’ homes and just happens to bring her dirty dishes and toiletries along. And that’s not a problem. The one common theme when talking with people who live in the dry cabins is how it forces them to think about their water usage.

Throughout our travels we saw beautiful rivers rushing, and waterfalls cascading thousands of feet. We took a riverboat cruise on the Chena River, the water so smooth there was barely a ripple. Because the river is so far from the ocean there are no tides. Unlike in Juneau where the variation of tides is greater than anywhere else in the United States – the variation can be up to 30 feet in one day! They have high-high tide, high-low tide, low-high tide and low-low tide. This is a shot of the Chena River from the riverboat.

Traveling on the water is often the fastest way to get from one city to another. From Skagway to Haines it’s 20 minutes by boat, 9 ½ hours by car. Most of the residents of Alaska have their pilot’s license and sea planes are as common as cars. Most families also have a team of sled dogs for when the waters freeze.

In 1924 there was a 9.2 earthquake which sunk some areas up to 12 feet. Salt water rushed in and petrified trees that still stand in boggy areas. The small town of Girdwood had to move 2.5 miles because of this.

This is Hurricane Gulch as we traveled across on the train to Whittier. We were advised if we had a fear of heights we shouldn’t look down. I looked.

This is one of the waterfalls on the 20 minute ride between Skagway and Haines. What you’d miss if you made the 9 1/2 hour drive.

And this is Mendenhall Glacier. Yes, we were standing on it.

From the rivers and waterfalls, to the snowcaps of the mountains, Alaska’s waters hold some of the most stunning and most interesting stories.

 

 

 

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Happy Summer Solstice . . . from the Land of the Midnight Sun

Here was the view from my Writer’s Window on June 5th, just two weeks ago. It may not seem that unusual or spectacular, but it was taken at 11:00 PM! We were in Alaska, crossing off one of our bucket-list items. It’s a bit disorienting to look out your window that late and outside it appears to be noon. Fairbanks was over 21 hours of daylight every day, heading toward today when they’d be at about 24 hours. It never really gets dark during this time, just more ‘dusk-like.’

Listening to several native Alaskans, it was obvious they love these long days. One of them, one of our bus drivers, told us that on June 21st it’s like a big party in Fairbanks. There are midnight picnics and a midnight ballgame in the park.

Our morning waitress, Anne, told us about her garden. “We only have 12 weeks of growing, but since the sun never really goes down, the plants are constantly being fed. It’s a short growing season but a compacted one.” And she laughed when she talked about the cook-outs, weddings, and other gatherings filling the calendar because everyone had the same 12 weekends to get things done. “There’s always some place to go.”

Starting the 22nd the Alaskans in this area will lose about 6 minutes of daylight each day as we slowly turn toward the winter solstice. At that time the sun never really rises much above the horizon. Those we talked to loved that time as well. But tonight at 9:00 as I write this, people in Fairbanks are just settling down for that first taste of smoked salmon, caribou burgers and whatever else may be in those picnic coolers, and waiting for the Summer Solstice games to begin.

Next week I’ll write more about the vast, pristine beauty of Alaska and of course the people – because that’s where the stories are.

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